Musings About Diets

Posted: September 20, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

So I started thinking about diets recently.

One thing often said regarding the “obesity epidemic” is that we need to teach proper nutrition, especially in schools. And I actually agree with that. I also don’t think anti-obesity folks are the only ones who can support good nutrition. That would certainly fall under Health At Every Size (HAES), IMO. HAES means feeding your body good, nutritious food to help fuel it to do all the wonderful things it can.

But the biggest issue I see with the idea of better nutritional education is- what does that mean?

This is often proposed as if there is a clear cut meaning to proper nutrition when certainly that’s not the case. Just take a look around all the diets out there and you will be able to see that what eating healthy looks like is not agreed upon.

I was thinking about this mainly in terms of how my own mentality has changed over the years regarding what eating healthy looks like. And what that has meant to me at various points depending on what my diet plan at the time was.

And while I wouldn’t describe myself as being on a diet, I am trying to make changes to my diet. And so a big part of what sparked this is noticing that I tend to think a lot to myself “but it has protein!” about a lot of foods. Because I am trying to eat more protein and it is hard for me. And there are a lot of foods I look at differently because of that. One example would be from the other night, I had a committee meeting at a community center located right next door to a Bdubs. And I decided after the meeting to stop in and get some boneless wings. Which would typically fall in most folks minds under the category of unhealthy foods. But of course in my head I think “but it has protein!” I mean, yeah, it’s breaded and deep-fried, and slathered in sauce but it is still chicken and still got protein there! Not really how I should go about increasing my protein consumption on a daily basis, but it’s hard for me to think of it as a terrible food choice right now because I don’t eat as much chicken and other protein rich meat as I should be.

Bacon of course would be another example. I’ve fallen back in love with bacon. A food that whenever I’ve been concerned with eating healthy in the past was pretty clearly in the “unhealthy” category.

And on the other hand there are a lot of foods I used to eat and consider healthy that no longer work with my current idea of eating healthy (for myself). Since I am trying to eat high protein, I’m also trying to limit carbs, so stuff like whole grains? Well, I try to limit those kinds of foods. Pastas I used to think of as being very healthy I try to avoid most of the time because they are so carb heavy.

Actually fun story- my health insurance company wanted me to take this health assessment quiz which included nutrition questions. It said my diet is not healthy because I don’t eat enough whole gains and eat too many vegetables. And my response was basically “lol, ok! </sarcasm>”  Pretty clear that what constitutes healthy is not universally agreed upon to me. I’d been using the If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) calculator to figure out target macro nutrients, and if you use that guideline there is no way anyone would look at my diet and say “you need to eat more whole grains”, they would be saying “you need to eat more protein”.

And of course then you get to the common diet mentality that “healthy” just means “low calorie”. And that’s how most people think, in my experience. So diet pop? Super healthy! That stuff has no calories! … I mean it also doesn’t really have any nutrients, but if it’s zero calories it has to be healthy, right?

I run into a problem with this often since I cannot eat artificial sweeteners- they trigger migraines and my doctor told me I should also avoid them due to meniere’s. And yet I am so often told about foods that they have “no sugar” as if this is a good thing. Well, since no sugar means you used artificial sweeteners instead, that just means I can’t eat it. But as a culture we have come to see “lower calorie” as synonymous with “healthier” to the extent that it would never occur to many people that the lower calorie option might actually be less healthy for some of us.

It also reminds me of a bit of an argument I had with a friend in high school over what type of lettuce was healthier. She said I should eat darker, greener lettuces because they have more nutrients. I was counting calories at the time and pointed out that iceberg lettuce was lower in calories though! Which for awhile was all I thought about. I remember reading dieting advice that all calories are the same, it doesn’t matter what you eat as long as the calories are low enough for you to lose weight. So I was totally cool to just drink pop for my daily calories (and there was a time when I would literally just drink pop. I would go days without eating any solid food and just drink pop. And under this advice, that was find as long as I counted the calories in that pop and kept it under my limit.)

Later I started to think more in terms of nutrition. And years later finally took my friends advice and swapped out the iceberg lettuce for other types with more nutrients. I also discovered this list of the “world’s healthiest foods” which I liked, and still like, even though I’m dubious of their claims that these foods will prevent cancer- it helped me to focus on eating more of food that were high in nutrients rather than just thinking in terms of eating less, or thinking only about calories.

And of course now my focus is both on eating foods that are high in nutrients and also trying to limit carbs while eating more protein. It’s a work in progress.

But reflecting on all of this, I can see what what it means to “eat healthy” has no one universal meaning. So while I think it would be great if we did more to educate people and kids on good nutrition, what would that look like? Personally, I think the idea of “healthy = low calorie” is a very poor one, and not one we should be focusing on. Looking at my own experiences, focusing too heavily on calories clearly does not necessarily lead to eating nutrient rich foods that help fuel our bodies. But there are so many places that this can go wrong. Are we going to tell kids that they are eating too many vegetables and not enough grains if their diet doesn’t exactly match the prescribed recommendations? Is it really unhealthy to eat more vegetables and fewer grains though? (I obviously don’t think so).

  1. […] and “healthy” foods are not well defined and will vary a lot from person to person. I’ve written a bit before on issues of “what is healthy” (and a bit here). One thing that stands out to me is that for “healthy” homecooked […]

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